Episode 170: Can you change the story in your head about a horse or is it time to move on?

A listener asks a question about ‘changing the story in your head about a horse…and knowing when it’s time to move on.’
Often times, the story we have in our head is a mixture of fact and story. Separating out the facts is useful. Pretending the facts don’t exist, so we can pretend to have a different story, is not useful.

It IS natural to have one story about a horse that does change over time in a healthy way.

The phrase ‘not the right fit for me’ is also used, which could point toward several things, including the idea of a horse ‘fitting’ you or having a temperament that you enjoy in a similar way as your best friend.
Finally, I bring up the way that I would approach looking at this question if I were exploring it myself.


Episode 170_ Can you change the story in your head about a horse or is it time to move on_.mp3
Announcer: [00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:22] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. Today, I’m answering a listener question about changing the story in your head about a horse and knowing when it’s time to move on. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail for Podcast.” Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: [00:00:54] Hi, Stacy, it’s Christina from Arizona. I have a mare who is fairly green for her age, and I have a tendency to compare her a lot to my gelding, who is really quiet. And my question for you is, how do you change the story in your head that you have about a horse? Or can you change the story in your head about this horse? And how do you know when it’s time to move on and that it’s just not a good fit? I have a toddler and a previous brain injury, but I’ve been riding most of my life and I have aspirations and goals for my riding, but I’m not sure if this mayor is going to be the right fit for me or if I’m just blocking myself because of this idea I have of her in my head out of defensiveness, and maybe she actually is a great fit for me. Thanks for the opportunity to ask these questions, and I love your podcast. Bye.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:14] Thanks for the question, Christina. I’ll answer this first. Can you change the story in your head about a horse? And the short answer is, yes. I think the bigger question is, do you want to? Because when we look at a story in our head, you have to ask the question, what parts of this story are useful and what parts of this story are not useful? Let me give you a quick example. If a person wanted to trail ride and they wanted a really quiet, almost lazy horse that they could ride once a week, they could get on, the horse would just walk down the trail, never get excited. And let’s say that that person was gifted a horse, given a horse that was naturally hot. It can be useful to look at the individual traits, the different things, like whether we want to call them traits, whether we want to call it what the person wants, what the horse naturally defaults to. It’s interesting to separate those out and look at them without judging them because if we don’t judge either one as right or wrong, it makes it easier to see what level of change would be needed by either the horse whose natural default is high energy or the rider who essentially wants to walk. We can start to see the gap in between there and choose whether or not that is something we want to take on. To me, when I think about that scenario, the question of changing the story there, I didn’t tell that in a very story-like manner. I actually told it in a little bit more of a neutral manner. A lot of times when people have that kind of a story like, this person gave me a horse and I love it. It’s the perfect color, I’ve always wanted to–fill in the blank. But it’s such an unruly problem, horse, and I just don’t know what to do with it. It just is always throwing its head, and it’s always–do you hear how that starts to sound more like a story where there’s a problem horse, there’s words like unruly or dangerous or these different things. So to me, that could be a different version of the story of a high-energy horse, could just simply be a high-energy horse that is having a certain reaction to the situation that it’s in. So when I think about changing the story, I think about in this made-up scenario of mine, the–trying to make the story be more just factual that there is a horse that’s higher energy and is this something I’m interested in or not? Sometimes when people ask about changing the story, what they kind of want to do is pretend that there are not actual facts. And I believe that there are certain things that are just worth accepting and working with. So for me, I accept that horses, some are high energy and some are low energy.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:37] At this point in my life, I know how to train both horses. I know how to train the hot horse, the high-energy horse, to look like it’s perfectly well balanced. And I know how to take the lazy horse and train it, so it looks perfectly well balanced, I did that with two different bridleless horses. Roxy was a little on the lazy side and Can Can Lena and Can Can Vaquero were both on the hotter side. But when you watch the bridleless rides on all three of those horses, which you can do on YouTube, you’re not going to be able to see the difference between the horse and the cold horse. That’s what the training did. But I don’t deny that those horses were naturally wired a certain way. My acceptance of this is actually part of what makes me able to work with them. So the short version of this answer right now is, change the story you have about the facts that you can find. Now, here’s a great example of another time when changing the story is almost more directly true. A really natural time to change the story in your head about a horse is during the training process. So you mentioned in your voicemail having a toddler. I have three sons, and my story about my children naturally changed as they got older and learned more things. So my story with them and the facts were different when they were toddlers versus teenagers and now they’re grown adults. Horses go through these changes also, and often young or green horses make choices during the training that would make you want to compare them to a toddler or a teenager. And since they are, let’s just say, a thousand pounds, it’s a lot different story. I remember buying two minis years ago that were not trained. They had never had halters on. They looked like little crazy, wild things when I got them. The little mare would stand up and walk on her hind legs towards me, pawing at the air. It was clearly meant to intimidate me. I’m sure that other things had moved when she had done that in the past, and I could understand why she was doing it at the time, and yet I was going to modify that. So there was the reality of what was there, but that was not an accurate predictor of the reality to come. So with training, both of them became quite quiet. I was able to teach them individually to drive, and then I taught them to drive as a team. And now they live at a summer camp and they pull the cart as a team. And in between times, they are washed and groomed and braided and led around by little kids. So these minis could have had a story around them that they were crazy little wild things. But that story changed and I changed their story. So there’s a dance of changing the story and changing the training, and both go hand in hand. I didn’t deny their wildness, and yet I did have to change my story as they matured. I think people really feel this difference in the riding process of the horses. So when I think about Presto, when I was first riding him, I naturally treated him like, he could make a choice that could put me at risk, like spooking in front of a car. This happens everywhere, but I really feel it strongly myself, still, when I’m first riding a horse, a colt, a young horse for the first time. There’s a transition point between accepting that there’s a higher risk the first time that I get on because there are so many unknowns. And let’s say that somewhere between the first ride and the hundredth ride, there’s a transition between this feels really high risk to this feels way less risky. And during that process, if–especially if you’re not really familiar with it, that can be a really interesting place for the stories. It’s actually beneficial for me to have a story that there is a risk when I’m first riding, that’s the way I view it. And so I actually want to embrace that story at the beginning. But I also realized that at some point, it’s also going to be beneficial for me to be aware of the changes and be aware that I need to continually change my story as it fits.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:38] So this is where it gets a little bit tricky. I won’t use my ability to change the story against myself, meaning I won’t believe in my gut that he’s high risk and then force myself to pretend it’s all going to be fine. I actually remember the very last time that I did that and I remember how hard I got bucked off because it turns out that if I decide the horse should be further along than it is and I force it and I don’t really believe it, there can be some more negative things that can happen there. So the “should” in this “should be further along” is coming from a comparison to another horse’s track of training. So if I really do believe that a certain horse, even if it’s on a certain day–So right now, I haven’t ridden my horses for six weeks because of whatever I had, and I’m just now getting better. And because I haven’t ridden them in six weeks, I’m going to go back through a lot of beginning steps with them and test things out because I’m going to consider them higher risk because they haven’t been worked and they look really frisky right now. If I wanted to just force myself to do it anyway, I would actually be setting both of us, me and the horse, up for a higher chance of failure. So just make sure that if I tell you that change is a part of this, that you don’t use it against yourself. Because in your gut, if you’re feeling tense about doing something, you want to actually work with that, not against yourself. I think for me, I still kind of experienced that a little bit like a teeter-totter. So I know that when I’m riding a colt, there’s this feeling at the beginning where I’m like, I’m accepting that I’m going to be the first one to ride this horse. So there’s–I’ve done everything I can do, but it’s still higher risk in my mind, and I’m OK with that. It’s actually turning up my awareness and the teeter-totter is kind of rock to one side. And then as I do more and more and more and more work, I start to feel that middle where it’s like that teeter-totter can’t quite decide which direction is going to tip. And that means some days I treat the horse a little bit like it’s a little more high risk. And some days I might give it a little bit more like, Oh, you know, you have been riding pretty good this week and blah blah blah. And–and then eventually I want to see that teeter-totter tipped to the other side and get more and more solid. So it’s just another way to look at staying true to what you’re feeling. Because with all of that being said, my scale and my example of how that teeter-totter would go is not going to line up exactly with somebody else’s. There’s going to be someone out there that looks at me and thinks I’m a risk-taker and there’s going to be someone else out there who thinks my choices are very conservative. I think I teeter-totter back and forth between the two. But the biggest thing for me is that I need to make sure that in the moment I’m being true to my current reality.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:04] Now you also mentioned having aspirations and goals for your riding and not being sure if she’s the right fit for you. There are a few different ways to look at this from a trainer’s perspective. Back when I was training horses for the public and there was a point when I was actually training some younger trainers. I remember teaching them the concept that they needed to learn how to like each horse because occasionally one of them would say, I just don’t like this horse very much. And I would tell them, decide how you can like it because it’s going to make your job a lot more beneficial for both of you. Even if you just think of it like, what is this horse teaching you? I know the horse is here for training, but what are you learning from this horse? I think this is the belief that helped me be able to train a wide variety of horses. Having said that, not all trainers view it like this. Other trainers I know choose to focus on one type of horse, so they’re much more likely to say, this particular horse doesn’t fit me. And what they mean by that is it might be the way of thinking that the horse has. It might be the way of movement that the horse has. It might be that the horse is not going to be very strong in the discipline that that rider wants, and those would all be examples of not a very good fit. Generally, these are people that are very focused on a specific event, have a very specific outcome, and they figured out what fits them and that’s what they’re using for criteria as they evaluate the horse. So this could be a piece of what’s going on when you say you have aspirations and goals for your riding and you’re not sure if she’s the right fit. It could be something along the lines of–of those. But I want to take it to a different level, and I want to say that there’s a whole nother layer, which a lot of amateurs, people that own horses and are not professionals, another layer that a lot of people are factoring in is like, liking the horse. And so sometimes when they say, not a good fit, instead of it being like a training level type thing, it can sometimes be more of an emotional type thing. If it’s a training level thing like you’re looking at the horse and you’re not sure if it’s a good fit, you can go to a professional, you can get evaluations of the horse and what you want to do with it. You can kind of solve some of those–those issues with a little bit of outside help. If it is something that has you asking questions like, Can I really train it myself? Do I need to hire a trainer or do I need to buy a different horse, one that’s already trained? All of those are questions that point more towards this being like a training type issue where maybe you don’t even know if this horse is a good fit because there’s not enough training to be able to establish it. Like back to my mini example. It’s just too untrained to be able to see the potential. But if we go to the other view of liking, like as in, is this horse a good fit? Ok, let’s totally put down the idea of this being a horse thing for a minute and let’s just look at people having other friends, human friends. I have friends that I love to be around. Yet I also have friends that if I put those two friends together, they kind of drive each other crazy. So I have friend A that I really get along with and friend B that I really get along with. But if I put friend a and friend B in the same room together, they drive each other crazy. How can that work? Like, they’re both my friend? Shouldn’t they both like each other and get along? Why doesn’t that work out like that? Don’t get me wrong, they’re adults, they can be in the same room together. They know how to behave. But there’s almost this awkwardness in the air because they don’t click. Why don’t they click? I don’t know what makes one person click with you and you want to talk to them every single day and you can be introduced to another person and never consider pursuing that friendship. I know there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of either one. But have you ever experienced the fact that some people you just really click with? Now if we take that and transfer it as a possibility over to horses, I think that back in the professional horse trainer example, it’s really beneficial to be able to appreciate each and every horse. And then there’s also this other level where some horses you do form that connection with. And the way that you mentioned your gelding makes me wonder if maybe you had something some kind of a connection like that with him, and now that’s a piece of the comparison with this mare. And what’s really interesting about that is it doesn’t have to be a problem, the fact that you had a connection with one horse. Because I have friend A and I have Friend B and I actually don’t compare them because they’re different. I don’t expect my good friends to be clones of each other. I don’t actually expect my human relationships with like friend A and friend B to be exactly the same, though. Do you know how boring that would be? So I like that they’re different and I actually expect that difference when I’m developing that new friendship, relationship, whatever that connection is, I’m trying to describe here in words that don’t sound totally weird with a horse. But I–I look at it actually to me, I feel it on that same level that I do friendships. So it’s interesting that sometimes when I see people struggling with not a good fit I still think how interesting it is that we sometimes think, Oh, I want the buckskin over there and then we just expect it to work. Can you imagine if that was like with people, just like somebody walking down the street like that one? That’s my new best friend. I just don’t think it works like that. So sometimes you just have to check in with yourself and–and try to really feel out what you’re after there. What I personally do is I approach each horse, even the ones that I own myself, I approach each horse with an open mind. And I look for things to love about each horse, things that each horse is going to teach me, the experiences we’re going to have together. And then if, as we develop our relationship, that little extra shows up, that’s a really pleasant surprise.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:45] Now this is a really interesting fact I think some of you will find interesting. I am most likely to sell one of my horses if I’m not experiencing that little spark and someone else comes into my barn, meets my horse, and I can see that spark happen. So if I see somebody else has that higher-level relationship for whatever reason that friendships are born. If I see that, that is the most likely time that I will sell one of my horses because I’m aware of that, whether I have it or not, and whether or not that horse could actually have it with somebody else. You also asked, how do you know when it’s time to move on or if I’m just blocking myself because of this idea I have of her in my head out of defensiveness? I wrote an article years ago titled, Knowing When to Sell Your Horse. In that article, which I will link to in the show notes, I focused on safety, enjoyment, and purpose. Sometimes safety is a training issue, and sometimes it’s a mismatch issue, something like the energy level example I gave at the beginning, somebody who wants to walk down the trail and a hot horse. So sometimes those will create safety issues. Sometimes enjoyment or lack of enjoyment stems from the safety issue or a bit of that. We could call it a temperament mismatch. That–that lack of that click or that spark or that friendship. So sometimes that will lower the enjoyment level. And sometimes the lack of enjoyment is tied together with the purpose, meaning you really want to do something. And that horse isn’t looking like it’s going to fulfill that meaning, I love my minis, but if I have a riding goal, the mini is not going to fulfill that for me. So sometimes it’s a purpose thing. I think the most interesting word that you used was defensiveness and that combined with you mentioning previous head trauma and your gelding being a lot more quiet. Makes me wonder if the defensiveness is a safety issue. If it is, I would suggest getting professional help because sometimes it’s easier to see the horse from a new perspective if we see them in a different situation. And I always prioritize safety. It’s just better in the long run for both the horse and the rider. Now, if we put that down, defensiveness could also be coming from the thoughts and not so much from a safety issue, meaning comparing one horse’s progress to another horse’s progress can lead to frustration. And if you’re feeling frustrated by the progress, then a lot of times there might be thoughts like, this horse is holding me back. I could be getting so much more done. I should be further along than this. And if that is kind of aimed at the horse because it seems like that horse is somehow the problem holding you back then what can happen is that frustration can actually kind of morph into a little bit of a defensiveness unconsciously. If you start having this generalized feeling that the horse is holding you back, I think the easier way to identify that is right now. Anyone who’s listening, imagine thinking a person was holding you back. Let’s just make it your boss at work. They’re holding you back. There are the reason why you’re not getting promoted, making more money, working better hours, whatever it is. If you start to imagine that person holding you back, can you see how quickly you could move to defensiveness in that scenario? I’m just saying that that’s a possibility. Over in the horse realm now, it could also be a touch of both. Maybe there’s a little bit of a safety thing going on and you’re a little bit defensive because you’re feeling like you have to keep yourself safe. And maybe this is also leading to a feeling of frustration because you’re being held back and there’s a little defensiveness over there. That’s where the work of pulling this apart piece by piece is very useful. I actually believe it’s true that some horses learn faster than others, and some horses, therefore, learn slower than others. For me personally, when I say this, it helps me accept the situation if a horse is making slow progress and I can make different choices without having to become frustrated. I can actually just say Presto’s taking longer to train than Gabby did. Therefore, this is actually his path. If I want a faster path, maybe I’m going to need to use a different horse. Can you see how there’s a dance between all of these concepts and how we look at these stories that we tell where a lot of times the story has an emotional trigger to it, where we can kind of separate out the facts and then decide how to retell that story?

Stacy Westfall: [00:26:12] So, Christina, thanks again for the question. And one final thing for you to consider. Sometimes people will know in their gut what they want to do, but they’ll avoid admitting it because they already know that the next step is also going to be an issue for them. So an example of this would be if you are considering selling and you feel like you’re kind of stuck in this loop right now you might actually just want to take it out another step and explore your views on selling horses. Some people are really triggered by the idea of selling a horse. And if you look at that article knowing when to sell your horse that I’ll link to, you’ll see there’s something like 60 something odd comments in there, and a lot of them are about whether or not it should be done at all. If you don’t know your views on selling, for example, if selling makes you feel sick to your stomach, then you might never get to the answer of whether or not this is an option for you because you’re kind of blocking yourself because you know somewhere in your mind that you’re not interested in exploring that concept. So you’ll just stay stuck in this earlier-like thing, all about the horse. So with that one final thought in mind, I hope my answer has sparked some new ways for you to view this. If it were me, I would set myself the task of writing about this situation daily. You could listen to the podcast and you could pull out one of the ideas that I gave you and write a full page on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to write, just start writing and say, I don’t even know what I’m going to write about. Stacy’s so wrong about this. Maybe she’s right about this. Just fill up the page. What I find is that the more I’m willing to explore a subject without judging myself as I do it, the more I’m able to start to see the facts of the subject. And I can start to make more clear decisions, sometimes right in the middle of writing a page, especially if it’s my 15th page on the subject, I’ll be sitting there thinking I don’t have anything else to write. And that’s when I can finally hear this little whisper of my gut that’s telling me what I really believe. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:28:45] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Knowing when to sell your horse

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